learn-french-with-music

The Ultimate, Song-filled Guide to Learn French with Music

It’s hard to talk about the music you love.

How do you even describe that giddy feeling you get when you discover a new favorite artist?

Or the joy you experience when you realize you’re about to play a song multiple times without getting sick of it?

But if words are an inadequate vehicle for music, music is still a perfect vehicle for words.

And that makes learning French with music easy and effective.

In this post, we’ll be looking at the essentials of how to learn French with music.

Then, we’ll listen to some of the best songs for learning French, from classics to fresh-from-the-studio earworms.

We’ll also take a look at the lyrics so you don’t just listen, you also understand and actively learn. And since we’re pretty sure you’ll find some new faves in this list, we’ll even include some extra tunes and artist interviews.
 


 
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How to Learn French with Music

  • Learn with songs that have near-endless appeal for you. Learn with music that you don’t only love, but that you can withstand multiple listens. Songs that you’re already excited about listening to again when you’re halfway through them.

Which songs you connect with in this way will be an intensely personal matter. That being said, I’ve tried to include songs on the list below that both represent a variety of musical styles and have a certain earworm quality, in the hopes that you’ll find something that really resonates with you.

  • Use both passive and active learning. Something that’s special about songs is their ability to get stuck in your head. This is perfect for memorization, but unfortunately, just because you have lyrics lodged in your brain doesn’t mean you necessarily understand them.

So simply listening to French music (or passive learning), even if you do it for days on end, isn’t going to be enough to teach you the language. Meanwhile, active learning—like intensively analyzing lyrics—will eventually get overwhelming or discouraging if you try it for every line of every French song you come across.

To let music be the great teacher it is, all you really need to do is create short bursts of regular, active learning for yourself. Then relax, really relax, and enjoy it the rest of the time.

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One way to get in your ideal dose of active learning is with FluentU. FluentU takes real-world videos—including music videos, but also movie trailers, news, etc.—and turns them into personalized language lessons. FluentU gives you customized quizzes that teach you the grammar and vocabulary in a particular song, so you can work out the lyrics at your own pace.

  • Code lyrics in a way that’s meaningful to you (using colors, font, etc.). This can be helpful for distinguishing between verb tenses, parts of speech and fixed expressions. For example, if you’re learning the imperfect tense, you could write out any verb that’s conjugated in the imperfect in blue, or italicize it.

Now for some music!

Learn French with Music: 10 Songs for Speedy Study (and Then Some)

Yseult: “Summer Love”

Let’s kick things off with an atmospheric pop song with good vibes. For learners, this song from French artist Yseult has the advantage of being partially in English and not having too many lyrics to memorize.

Also, while it can teach you some figurative language, it keeps things pretty simple throughout.

Let’s take a look at the first few lines:

Ton regard me touche, m’assassine

Je suis saoule de tous tes gestes

Tu me rends la-la-la-la-la-la

Your gaze touches me, slays me

I’m drunk on all your movements

You make me la-la-la-la-la-la

One thing you might notice immediately is that the song uses informal language and is in the present tense. It also switches between tu (informal “you”) and je (I), which gives you a chance to practice your conjugations.

More from Yseult

  • Stromae fans may be interested to know that Yseult appeared on the French TV show “Nouvelle Star” (“New Star”) in 2014, where she performed a cover of Stromae’s song “Papaoutai” (the title sounds like “Papa, où t’es ?” or “Papa, where are you?”).

  • Yseult’s first single, “La Vague” (“The Wave”), is another good selection for learners, with lyrics that are relatively easy to understand.

Vendredi sur Mer: “Chewing-Gum”

Vendredi sur Mer, the musical project of Swiss artist Charline Mignot, literally translates as “Friday on [the] sea.” Sur mer recalls a standard place name, sort of like Stratford-upon-Avon. For example, Octeville-sur-Mer and Vierville-sur-Mer are both communes in Normandy.

This song takes a more removed view of love, and depicts a relationship as something being grappled with from a distance. The grammar is a bit more complicated, too, as it uses various tenses and moods throughout.

This is a good song for practicing commands and imperative expressions:

Reviens-moi entier, vivant

Rappelle-moi ce soir tout le temps

Visitons la ville de nuit, de jour et

Naviguons facile maintenant, toujours

Come back to me whole, alive

Call me back tonight all the time

Let’s visit the city by night, by day and

Let’s sail easy now, always

Note that rappelle-moi can have the meaning of either “call me back” or “remind me.”

More from Vendredi sur Mer

  • This Vogue interview with Charline Mignot goes into the reasoning behind the name “Vendredi sur Mer,” among other things.
  • If you like Vendredi sur Mer’s sound but are looking for something a little easier to understand than “Chewing-Gum,” check out La Femme à la Peau Bleue (“The Woman with the Blue Skin”).

Corneille: “Parce qu’on vient de loin” (“Because we come from far away”)

Corneille is the stage name of Cornelius Nyungura, a singer born in West Germany who grew up in Rwanda, then eventually moved to Quebec after fleeing the genocide there. “Parce qu’on vient de loin” includes some references to immigration, cultural trauma and loss laid over a philosophy of living each day as it comes. The song feels both deliberately lighthearted and sad.

As “Parce qu’on vient de loin” is partially about living in the present, it seems appropriate that it’s mostly in the present tense. It also dips into the conditional mood in the chorus:

Alors on vit chaque jour comme le dernier 

Et vous feriez pareil si seulement vous saviez 

Combien de fois la fin du monde nous a frôlés 

Alors on vit chaque jour comme le dernier

Parce qu’on vient de loin

So we live each day like the last

And you would do the same if only you knew

How many times the end of the world brushed us past

So we live each day like the last

Because we come from far away

The second line essentially uses the construction si (if) + imperfect, conditional. Saviez is the imperfect of savoir (to know) and feriez is the conditional of faire (to do).

More from Corneille

  • For a newer selection from Corneille, try “Tout le monde” (“Everyone”).

Mai Lan: “Autopilote” (“Autopilot”)

Mai Lan is a French artist who writes songs in both English and French. Unfortunately for French learners, her latest album veers more towards English, but “Autopilote,” one of the best tracks on it, is in French.

This song could be interpreted as being about some numbed, altered state of consciousness or simply a feeling of drifting away from things.

While the lyrics seem wordy at first glance, the chorus is simple and very easy to get stuck in your head:

En autopilote, je suis comme endormie 

Dans mon bordel je mets de l’ordre, je rouvre les plaies guéries 

En autopilote, je ne serai pas lucide à

Dans ton bordel mettre de l’ordre, ne cherche plus mon avis

Ne cherche plus mon avis

On autopilot, it’s like I’m asleep

I put my mess in order, I reopen healed wounds

On autopilot, I won’t be lucid to

Put your mess in order, don’t seek my opinion anymore

Don’t seek my opinion anymore

Mettre de l’ordre dans is literally to put order into something. It can refer to cleaning something up literally or figuratively. For example, you can mettre de l’ordre dans ta vie (get your life together).

More from Mai Lan

  • For a more energetic offering, check out Mai Lan’s “Les Huîtres” (“The Oysters”).

  • While it includes some English-language clips, this “Confidences by Siham” interview with Mai Lan is in French.

Françoise Hardy: “Le temps de l’amour” (“Time of love”)

Even if you’re not into older French music, there’s a good chance you’ve heard this ’60s song somewhere. It was featured in the soundtrack for Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom,” and it’s just one of those songs that seems to shows up in places.

Edith Piaf is often considered a go-to for learning French simply because of her place in French culture, and that’s fair. But as far as well-known singers go, Françoise Hardy actually seems like a more obvious choice. She’s easier to understand, generally speaking, and her lyrics tend to be simpler, too.

This is a pop-forward but sort of haunting song about all-consuming youthful love. Here’s the main repeating part:

C’est le temps de l’amour,

le temps des copains et de l’aventure

Quand le temps va et vient,

on ne pense à rien malgré ses blessures

It’s the time of love

The time of friends and adventure

When time comes and goes,

You think of nothing despite your wounds

There isn’t really much to pick apart here, but some of the words being used have slightly broader meanings in French than in English. Temps in French can refer to time in general, a specific period of time or weather. In this context, it seems like it could be appropriate to alternatively translate it as “season.” Copain and its feminine copine can mean “friend,” but also “boyfriend”/”girlfriend.”

More from Françoise Hardy

  • Another song you may have heard from Françoise Hardy is “Tous les garçons et les filles” (All the boys and the girls).

  • Hardy, now in her 70s, has released music in recent years and continues to make public appearances. Here she is on the show “On n’est pas couché” (“We haven’t gone to sleep, we’re not in bed”).

Bertrand Belin: “Comment ça se danse” (“How do you dance [that]”)

This eerie, atmospheric tune might sound familiar if you’ve watched the second season of “Killing Eve.” It seems appropriate for it to show up in a crime series, as many Bertrand Belin songs sound like they must already be on the soundtrack of a film involving buried family secrets (and possibly murder) in a sparse, rural setting. This one is pretty ambiguous as far as meaning but it’s also pretty creepy.

What makes it great for learners is how slowly it proceeds:

Viens

Allons

Viens

Je te dis

Qu’il faut y aller

Tant qu’il fait bon et clair

Laisse le feu

Il s’éteindra

Come

Let’s go

Come

I’m telling you

That we must go

While it’s nice and light

Leave the fire

It will go out

These phrases are very simple, but also very useful. You already have several commands, an example of the idiomatic expression il faut y aller (it’s time to go, it’s necessary to go) and a use of the pronominal verb s’éteindre (to go out, die).

More from Bertrand Belin

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  • In addition to Parcs (Parks), which the song above appears on, Bertrand Belin’s album Hypernuit (which isn’t a real word but might translate to something like “supernight” or “meganight”) is full of atmospheric songs with lyrics that are relatively easy for learners to understand and pick apart.

Alex Beaupain and Camélia Jordana: “Avant la haine” (“Before the hatred”)

This music video introduces you to two established French singers along with a French filmmaker, Christophe Honoré, who directed it. The song, which could be interpreted as being about a stalled relationship that nevertheless isn’t quite over, originally appeared in the movie “Dans Paris” (“In Paris”), also directed by Christophe Honoré.

The duet vocals have a playful, ambling feel that makes the song fun to transcribe and translate, as in this part:

Non, je t’embrasse

Et ça passe

Tu vois bien

On se débarrasse pas de moi comme ça

No, I kiss you

And it passes

You see clearly

You can’t get rid of me like that

Se débarrasser is a good verb to know, along with the phrase se débarrasser de (to get rid of).

More from Alex Beaupain and Camélia Jordana:

  • “Les Chansons D’Amour” (Love Songs) is another collaboration between Christophe Honoré and Alex Beaupain. Original songs from Beaupain are featured throughout the film.
  • Camélia Jordana is another singer who got her break on the show “Nouvelle Star,” where she performed the song “Quelqu’un m’a dit” (“Someone told me”) by Carla Bruni.

Stromae: “Formidable” (“Wonderful”)

One day, songs from the two incredibly successful albums Belgian artist Stromae released in 2010 and 2013 may no longer seem relevant enough to put on every single list of French-language music. Today is not that day.

This is an excellent song for learners because the chorus is simple and teaches you some conjugations of the verb être (to be) in the imperfect, while the verses are more conversational. It also might be the most impressive Stromae song to watch being performed live.

The above video is a brilliant if somewhat uncomfortable performance in itself. It was filmed on the street without the public’s knowledge, and with Stromae effectively acting out the part of the heartbroken, probably drunk character in the song. Just so you’re aware, there’s some “language” in the video, including in the English translation.

Here’s the chorus:

Formidable, formidable,

Tu étais formidable, j’étais fort minable,

Nous étions formidable

Wonderful, wonderful

You were wonderful, I was really pathetic,

We were wonderful

While it’s a simple bit of wordplay, the switch from formidable (wonderful, great, extraordinary) to fort (literally “strong,” used here as an intensifier) + minable (pathetic, pitiful, wretched) is really effective. It contextualizes all the bits of language presented in a way that’s easy to remember and understand.

More from Stromae

  • Stromae’s “Alors On Danse” (“So We Dance”) hasn’t gotten old either, and probably won’t for a very long time. It has great earworm value.

  • This French-subtitled interview from Konbini is great reading and listening practice for learners.

Christine and the Queens: “Christine”

Christine and the Queens is the professional name of French songwriter and performer Héloïse Adelaïde Letissier. This song of hers is low-key and has ambiguous lyrics, but it’s extremely catchy and difficult to stop listening to. It’s also paired with this great dance video.

Some listeners have gone for a darker interpretation, theorizing that the song is about domestic violence, but Letissier has said that she saw it as simply about “being out of place.”

Here’s the chorus:

Je ne tiens pas debout

Le ciel coule sur mes mains

Je ne tiens pas debout

Le ciel coule sur

Ça ne tient pas debout

Le ciel coule sur mes mains

Ça ne tient pas debout

Sous mes pieds le ciel revient

I don’t hold up

The sky runs over my hands

I don’t hold up

The sky runs over

That doesn’t hold up

The sky runs over my hands

That doesn’t hold up

Under my feet the sky returns

Tenir debout is either to literally stand up or to hold up in a figurative sense. When applied in the negative to an argument, it can have the meaning of not making sense or “holding water” (much like the English “hold up”).

Letissier has translated some of her songs into English, and there’s an English-language version of the whole album this song is on, but I wouldn’t recommend listening to it for learning purposes. As is usually the case with translating songs or poetry, exact meaning is sacrificed for overall meaning and form.

But it could definitely be a fun project to translate the songs into English yourself and then compare them to the official versions.

More from Christine and the Queens

  • As she’s become known more internationally, many of the interviews Letissier has done are in English, but this short one from RFM is in French.

  • For a more recent single from Christine and the Queens that’s pretty easy to follow, check out “La marcheuse” (“The walker”).

France Gall: “Laisse tomber les filles” (“Leave the girls alone”)

Here’s another song that could’ve already made it through your ears and into your brain via non-French pop culture. It was recently featured in the movie “A Simple Favor” starring Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively, though it was written by Serge Gainsbourg and first sung by France Gall in 1964. It’s a fun, silly song and simultaneously another sinister-sounding French take on romance.

The lyrics and original video make it seem that the song is admonishing a boy who runs around from girl to girl without any regard for their feelings. “Laisse tomber les filles” functions as a warning:

Laisse tomber les filles, laisse tomber les filles

Un jour c’est toi qu’on laissera

Laisse tomber les filles, laisse tomber les filles

Un jour c’est toi qui pleureras

Leave the girls alone, leave the girls alone

One day you’ll be the one who’s left

Leave the girls alone, leave the girls alone,

One day you’ll be the one who’s crying

Laisse tomber means “let fall,” and can be used in the sense of dumping or “dropping” someone.

More from France Gall

  • Here’s a short and sweet RTS interview with France Gall from 1969.

 

You don’t have to know a lot about music or even be a big fan of any artist to learn French with music. All you need to do is find one song to enjoy, and go from there. Happy listening and learning!


Elisabeth Cook is a freelance writer and language nerd. You can read more of her writing at Lit All Over.

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